By Jules Witcover

President Obama's categorical declaration that Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi "must leave" puts him out on a limb. But he is on solid ground in requiring that American response to the repression of the Libyan rebels come through collective international action.

The United Nations Security Council's authorization for a no-fly zone over Libya may prove to be a matter of locking the barn door after the horse is stolen. Still, Obama's insistence on that UN sanction is a significant course correction for American foreign policy after the eight years of Bush unilateralism.

Nine years ago, when George W. Bush mounted his plan to invade Iraq, he had for months denied any such scheme. Only under the prodding of then Secretary of State Colin Powell did he agree to seek UN authorization for the action.

While the Security Council did approve a use-of-force resolution after a strong Powell presentation -- one he later called "a blot" on his record -- Powell then persuaded Bush to return to the UN for a more explicit mandate for the invasion.

As the Security Council balked, Bush taunted its reluctance, warning that it risked becoming "irrelevant" if it failed to go along. In fact, the UN was attempting to demonstrate its relevance by denying its blessing of the invasion. Instead it called for more time for inspectors to determine whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, as the Bush administration assured the world it did.

In the end, an impatient Bush, castigating the UN for its refusal to sanction an invasion in violation of the UN Charter, plunged ahead without it. The outcome was arguably the worst American foreign-policy misadventure in the nation's history, based as it was on faulty or deceptive intelligence. Militarily successful at first, it culminated in an Iraq quagmire that nine years later still isn't over.

That lesson is one that obviously has haunted Obama throughout the first two years of his presidency. In his successful 2008 campaign, he pledged to restore America's reputation in the world community after the Bush years of unilateralism. He said he would return America to reliance on collective action through the UN, declaring his faith in its relevance after Bush's demonstrated contempt for it.

Now, in falling back on the UN and other international alliances for cover in the Libyan crisis, Obama has practical political as well as philosophical grounds for avoiding the go-it-alone approach of the previous administration. He remains burdened by the results of the Bush adventurism in Iraq as well as the Afghanistan marathon lengthened by that 2003 diversion to depose Saddam Hussein.

Taking on clear leadership of military action against Libya, a third Muslim country, would have been a particularly worrisome task in dealing with the Arab world. This time around, the UN umbrella provides a much more credible alliance than the transparent "coalition of the willing" that Bush patched together through coercion and bribery in 2003.

Whatever the outcome of the Libyan crisis, Obama is likely at the end to be more remembered for his impetuous statement that Gaddafi "must leave" than for rightly confining American efforts to achieve his ouster under that UN umbrella.

Obama is already overburdened by Bush's radical foreign-policy missteps. He can be legitimately chastised by fellow Democrats who remember his 2008 campaign promises to get the United States out of Iraq and Afganistan, and are impatient with the slow pace of his plans to do so. He is vulnerable also to criticism from antiwar Democrats over his late 2009 decision to send 100,000 more U.S. forces into Afghanistan, as a later version of Bush's similar surge into Iraq.

Nevertheless, in insisting that American engagement in the Libyan crisis be part of the international response Obama is taking a welcome step back from the Bush swagger that led to nearly a decade of overextended power.

With the still mounting nuclear and humanitarian crises in Japan, American resources to meet international obligations are especially strained right now. U.S. leadership is universally expected on many fronts, but must be tempered by the heavy financial responsibilities that demand attention at home.


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